There are many types of snakes in the United States, and it can be difficult to tell them apart. Two of the most common venomous snakes are the cottonmouth and copperhead. They may look similar, but there are some key differences that you need to know.
What is a cottonmouth snake and copperhead snake?
A cottonmouth snake, also known as a water moccasin, is a type of pit viper. Pit vipers are venomous snakes that have heat-sensing pits between their eyes and nostrils. These pits help them to locate prey.
Cottonmouths are usually dark brown or black and have a white or cream-colored band around the middle of their bodies. They get their name from the white lining of their mouths, which they show when they feel threatened.
Copperhead snakes are also pit vipers. They are usually lighter in color than cottonmouths, with brown, tan, or coppery-colored crossbands on their bodies. Their heads are usually a solid color. Copperheads are shy snakes and rarely bite unless they feel threatened. Copperhead snakes have the distinction of biting more people in the United States than any other snake.
How do you tell the difference between a cottonmouth and a copperhead?
One of the easiest ways to tell these two snakes apart is by their habitats. Cottonmouths are typically found in or near water, while copperheads are more often found on land.
Cottonmouths are also generally larger than copperheads. They can grow to be up to six feet long, while copperheads usually only grow to be three feet long.
The differences in the appearance of a cottonmouth vs copperhead
Both snakes are pit vipers so they have a lot of physical similarities.
Their heads are blocky and triangular. Their eyes are vertical, similar to cat pupils, and are camouflaged by a broad, dark, facial stripe.
Cottonmouths are usually dark brown or black with a white or cream-colored band around the middle of their bodies. They get their name from the white lining of their mouths, which they show when they feel threatened.
The cottonmouth snake is a large snake that can measure between 32 and 42 inches in length, making it the largest of the genus Agkistrodon that is belongs to. Their bodies are thick and muscular, weighing between 201.1g and 579.6g, with males being heavier than females.
These snakes have keeled or ridged scales and are gray, tan or dark olive-brown to almost black with 10–17 dark brown to almost black dark crossbands that may not be visible. They may also have dark spots and speckles, although the pattern darkens with age so adults may become uniformly black. Their underside is tan or gray with dark blotches.
Copperheads are typically lighter in color than cottonmouths, with brown, tan, or coppery-colored crossbands on their bodies. Their heads are usually a solid color.
Adult Copperhead snakes have a coppery-colored head and neck. Copperhead snakes are medium-sized snakes, with adults normally reaching 80 centimeters – 1.2 meters (2 – 4 feet), with thick, heavy bodies. Their body is more slender, however, compared to most other pit vipers.
The differences in the behavior of a cottonmouth vs copperhead
Cottonmouths are aggressive snakes and will often strike if they feel threatened. They will also sometimes “play dead” by floating motionless in the water.
Cottonmouth snakes are widely thought to be extremely dangerous. Unlike their Copperhead cousins, they will often stand their ground. Their venom is stronger and they tend to be larger snakes, making them very dangerous.
However unless provoked, they will not harm humans. They’re much more likely to try to escape if encountered rather than attack. When they feel threatened, they coil their bodies and open their mouths wide to show wide coloration inside their mouths.
Copperheads are shy snakes and rarely bite unless they feel threatened. If they do bite, their bites are usually not fatal to humans.
Copperhead snakes rely upon camouflage and cover for safety when danger is perceived. It is usually not difficult to find a Copperhead snake crossing a road on a warm summer night. Because Copperhead snakes have a habit of freezing at the approach of danger, many are killed by vehicle traffic.
When danger is perceived, Copperhead snakes will usually freeze in place and remain motionless for the threat to pass. This strategy works well in their natural habitat. Unless a person steps on them, grasps them, or otherwise comes very, very close to them, Copperhead snakes will not usually bite. However, the bite will be readily used as a last defense. An agitated Copperhead snake will vibrate its tail rapidly.
The relative abundance of Copperhead snakes and their occurrences near human habitations is the reason bites from Copperhead snakes are at the top of venomous snakebite statistics in the eastern US.
Where do you find these snakes?
Cottonmouths are typically found in or near water, while copperheads are more often found on land. They are both found in the southeastern United States.
Copperhead snakes prefer habitats with lots of vines, vegetation and debris. Their coloration and patterning are very effective for camouflage in dead leaves on the forest floor. Copperhead snakes may be found on hilltops or lowlands. It is not unusual for Copperhead snakes to be found in forested or undeveloped areas within and near suburban developments.
Cottonmouth snakes are most commonly located throughout Florida, in every county, and can be found in the Upper Florida Keys and several islands in the Gulf of Mexico in Levy and Franklin. Cottonmouths can also be seen in southeastern Virginia and west to central Texas and north to southern Illinois and Indiana.
Cottonmouths are mainly found in swamps, sloughs, wetlands, and drainage ditches of western coastal plains, but can also be found in rivers and lakes. Because they are semiaquatic, they can be found both on land and in water.
What to do if you encounter one of these snakes?
If you see a snake in your yard, the best thing to do is leave it alone. Most snakes are not venomous and pose no threat to humans. If you see a cottonmouth snake, however, it’s best to keep your distance and call animal control.
Now that you know the difference between these two types of snakes, you can be sure to avoid them if you see them in the wild!
If you do come across a snake, it’s always best to leave it alone and let it go on its way.
How can you tell the difference between a Venomous and Non-Venomous snake?
The easiest way to tell if a snake is venomous or not is to look at its head. Venomous snakes will generally have a triangular-shaped head, while non-venomous snakes will have a more rounded head.
You can also tell the difference by looking at the snake’s eyes. Venomous snakes will have slit-like pupils, while non-venomous snakes will have round pupils.
Finally, venomous snakes will have a pair of fangs in the front of their mouths, while non-venomous snakes do not have fangs. If you’re ever unsure, it’s best to err on the side of caution and assume the snake is venomous.